Into the blue

Bouches-du-Rh�ne has a fascinating heritage beneath breathtaking natural beauty. Victoria Trott gets under its skin

Rocky inlets reach like fingers into the limestone cliffs along a 20-kilometre stretch of magnificent coastline between Cassis and Marseille. The water is clear azure blue; the towering cliffs bright white in the Mediterranean sunshine as little boats packed with open-mouthed visitors bob gently in the swell, dwarfed by nature’s artistry.

These fjord-like creeks are called calanques and are due to become a French national park this year. Formed by erosion or when the roofs of coastal caves collapsed and sea levels rose, the steep-sided valleys are a magnet for rock climbers and also for hikers who come to explore a network of trails which criss-cross the sparse, scented garrigue of sage, juniper and myrtle.

The best time to visit this part of Bouches-du-Rh�ne is between March and May when temperatures are still fresh and the calanques are fully accessible; during the summer months they are closed from the landward side to prevent damage and to reduce the risk of wild fires.

You can also explore them by boat and daily trips with experienced guides run regularly from Marseille, Cassis or La Ciotat; worth considering as the cliff-top terrain can be hazardous for the inexperienced or unwary.

Stretching along the middle section of the southern French coast, the Bouches-du-Rh�ne department has plenty to offer visitors and residents – from the marshy expanses and white horses of the Camargue to the cosmopolitan city of Marseille (2013 European Capital of Culture) and from the chic market town of Saint-R�my-de-Provence to the wines of Cassis.

It was near Cassis in 1985 that local diver Henri Cosquer discovered a new cave about 115 feet below sea level – but it was only in 1991 that its treasure was made public. The Grotte Cosquer, as it is now known, contains the world’s second oldest cave art (after the Grotte Chauvet in Ard�che) and is the only decorated cave that has been found in Provence. Deep inside, images include 65 adult and child hand stencils, 177 animals of 11 different species and 216 geometric designs of unknown meaning.

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Understandably, due to its delicate contents and hazardous location, the cave is closed off to the public. Plans have been mooted to build a replica underneath the port in Marseille, however funds have yet to be raised.

Cassis itself is the Bouches-du-Rh�ne’s answer to Saint-Tropez (although there isn’t quite as much glitz) and some argue that it’s here the C�te d’Azur begins. Illustrious visitors have included Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill but these days it’s French film and TV stars and footballers who grace the village with their presence. Wherever you turn here, you will have to stop for a second to take in the vistas, which include a view across to Cap Canaille – Europe’s tallest cliff.

This area is a must-visit for wine buffs as on the hills around Cassis are 12 vineyards which each year produce one million bottles of the finest AOC wine. All are open for tours and tastings but the vintner-cum-wine bar Le Chai Cassidain, in a cobbled backstreet, is a chic venue for a relaxed tipple. The place to eat is the fishmonger and restaurant La Poissonnerie on the ground floor of one of the tall, pastel-coloured buildings around the small port; rockfish soup is the speciality. On the quay, the remaining eight fishing boats all sell their catch each morning.

Digging a little deeper below the sunny surface of Bouches-du-Rh�ne reveals a land steeped in history and alive with myth and legends that still resonate in the f�tes and festivals of the department today.

Not far to the north of Arles with its well-preserved Roman remains and nostalgic Van Gogh sites is Tarascon where it is said that in the 1AD the town was terrorised by a monster with a lion’s head, six short legs and a shell covered in spikes which lived in the nearby River Rh�ne. No one was able to kill this Tarasque until along came St Martha who tamed it with prayers and hymns – before leading it into town where the people were terrified and killed it. After she had converted the townsfolk to Christianity, they were sorry for what they had done and named the place after the unfortunate creature.

The legend of the Tarasque, now on Unesco’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, is still celebrated today with a festival during the last weekend of June. It even inspired a recent crime novel, The Beast of the Camargue by Xavier-Marie Bonnot.Visitors are reminded of its presence year-round by a sculpture on the banks of the Rh�ne next to this unremarkable town’s main attraction: the ch�teau. Dating from 1400, this imposing angular fortress is regarded as one of the finest medieval castles in France and has 360-degree views of the surrounding area from its crenulated roof. Nearby is the Coll�giale Royale de Sainte-Marthe, where the saint is buried and which has an 18th-century painting of her taming the monster.

Further south on the coast, during the fourth week of May every year, thousands of gypsies from around the world gather in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the principal village of the Carmargue, to celebrate their patron saint: Sarah. Caravans – some modern, some horse-drawn – line the roads around the �tangs (lagoons) and the smell of cooking permeates the air along with the sweet scent of jasmine.

“Vive Sainte Sarah! Vivent les Saintes Maries!” chants the crowd as it proceeds from the fortified church down to the Mediterranean. Somewhere in the middle, carried on the shoulders of the pilgrims, is a wooden effigy of a dark-skinned girl whose face is barely visible due to an off-centre tiara and layers of lace capes. Soon, she will be reunited with the water from whence she came.

According to one legend, Sarah was the Egyptian maid of Jesus’ follower Mary Jacob� who, along with other followers including Mary Salom�, Mary Magdalene and Martha, left Palestine by boat after the crucifixion and landed in what became the village that is now named after them. According to another, Sarah was the chief of a dark-skinned tribe who lived on the banks of the River Rh�ne and helped the boat ashore by using her cape as a raft on the rough sea.

In the square in front of the church where the bones of St Sarah lie, the violin and accordion-led laments of East European group Urs Karpatz move onlookers to tears. On a nearby restaurant terrace, a man with a ponytail plays Flamenco guitar and the audience claps along under the approving gaze of 90-year-old Manitas de Plata, the world-famous local musician. In a couple of days, the village will morph back into a small, workaday resort where Camargue traditions such as les courses (bull-baiting games) are staged for holidaymakers away from the sandy beaches. But for now, participants and onlookers alike are transported to a faraway time; cementing links with a past now long gone but not forgotten.

Leaving the lush, green Carmargue behind and travelling north-east past Arles and across the arid Crau plain – the only steppe region in Western Europe – the road will eventually bring you to Salon-de-Provence.

Although he was born in Saint-R�my-de-Provence, Michel de Nostredame – aka the soothsayer Nostradamus – lived in Salon from 1547 to 1566; he is buried in the Coll�giale Saint-Laurent. His house is now a museum where visitors can learn all about his life from his medical background to his prophesies. Such is his fame here he even had a chocolate created for him by the town’s Chocolaterie Bertrand – orange-flavoured marzipan enrobed in white chocolate – to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death.

Salon is an interesting place to spend a couple of days. There are busy markets on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday and the elevated Ch�teau de l’Emp�ri, once one of the biggest castles in Provence and former home to the archbishops of Arles, now houses an important collection of militaria. In the square below, the Mus�e Gr�vin traces the history of Provence through scenes featuring waxworks of famous personalities from its past. On the edge of town, the Mus�e du Savon Marius Fabre, one of the few remaining family-run companies making Marseille soap using traditional ingredients and methods, shows visitors how the product has evolved through the ages. The most famous sights in Salon are the 17th-century clocktower and the fontaine moussue, a mushroom-shaped, moss-covered fountain, and the adjacent Caf� des Arts is an excellent place to have lunch in retro surroundings – the lamb skewer with sun-dried tomato tapenade is particularly good.

Head east to the Ch�teau de la Barben. For Aix-born painter Marius Granet, La Barben was “the most ancient and the most picturesque castle in Provence” and once visitors have seen the perfectly curved monumental staircase and ornamental garden said to be designed by Andr� Le N�tre (who created the gardens at Versailles) they will undoubtedly agree. Now, mere mortals have the opportunity to live like a marquis and marquise as the owners have recently started offering B&B in five antique-filled, opulently decorated rooms. A short walk from the ch�teau, the Zoo de la Barben is a fun day out for families and animal lovers.

Journey east again from Barben and you’ll arrive at Aix-en-Provence, the ancient capital of Provence and birthplace of one of France’s most famous painters, Paul C�zanne. Aix was founded in 122BC and today is a vibrant town with beautiful fountains and tranquil squares. The local tourist office organises tours of C�zanne’s Aix and if you visit the artist’s studio, you’ll discover how the unspoilt countryside surrounding the town inspired his work, particularly Mont Sainte Victoire, which he painted many times.

Writer �mile Zola also made Aix his home for several years, forging a friendship with C�zanne and meeting him regularly at Caf� des Deux Gar�ons in Cours Mirabeau. It’s the ideal spot in which to while away an afternoon, or to indulge in a spot of shopping in the elegant boutiques there. For a classic taste of France, visit Place Richeleme with its daily market.

Bouches-du-Rh�ne has captured the hearts of thousands of visitors who have returned year after year or settled permanently in this beautiful part of Provence. And with its roots deep in the rites and rituals of days gone by and its face smiling in the warm Mediterranean sunshine, it’s easy to understand why.